Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)

Co-inventor, frequency hopping/spread spectrum

How one of the world’s most beautiful women and most popular film stars of Hollywood’s golden era came to co-invent the most important wireless communications security technology – frequency hopping – is a strange and wonderful story.

Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna on November 9, 1914, to Gertrude, who played the piano, and Emil, a banker, both assimilated Jews. While growing up, her father would accompany her on walks and describe how machines they came across worked. By her late teens, the young beauty had appeared in five films, including now infamous nude scenes in the Czech movie Ecstasy in 1933.

Soon after making Ecstasy, she married Fritz Mandl, an Austrian munitions maker. Mandl, thought to be the third richest man in Austria, entertained clients including Italian dictator Benito Mussolini at dinner parties at their home. Mandl displayed his wife as arm candy at these parties and at meetings with scientists and munitions engineers, sparking anew her interest in applied science and engineering. While Mandl didn’t mind showing off his wife at parties, he prevented her from pursuing her acting career.

Frustrated at her husband’s controlling and restrictive behavior, Lamarr disguised herself as her own maid, wearing all her jewelry beneath the uniform, and escaped in 1937. She made her way to London, where she finagled a lucrative contract with MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer. After a starring turn in Algiers (1938), Lamaar became Hollywood’s new exotic beauty queen.

But when she wasn’t making movies, Lamarr tinkered and invented; she even set up an “inventor’s corner” in her home.

Even though she was a renowned beauty, Lamarr was self-conscious about her figure. Soon after the release of her fourth film, Boom Town with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy in the late summer of 1940, she read a Esquire magazine article by peripatetic film composer George Antheil about glandular treatments. Wondering if he could suggest ways to enhance her bust line, she asked mutual friends Adrian, the costume designer, and his wife, actress Janet Gaynor, to invite the composer to dinner. A flustered Antheil fielded questions from Lamarr about her figure after dinner, then again at a second dinner the following night. But soon their conversation wandered toward the war in Europe and Lamarr’s desire to aid her adopted country in what both were sure would soon become their war.

Lamarr expressed her desire to quit show business, guilty that she was making so much money when horrors were being perpetrated in her homeland, and join the U.S. government’s new Inventors’ Council.  She explained her munitions background and interest, then showed Antheil some of the ideas she’d been working on. After several meetings over the next few weeks, she read of the September 17th sinking of the City of Benares by a German radio-controlled torpedo. This gave her an idea, explained by author Richard Rhodes in his 2011 book, “Hedy’s Folly”:

if a radio transmitter and receiver are synchronized to change their tuning simultaneously, hopping together randomly from frequency to frequency, then the radio signal passing between them cannot be jammed. Hedy called this idea “hopping of frequencies,” a grammatically German translation of the German compound word frequenzsprungverfahren, “frequency-hopping process” – in colloquial English, “frequency hopping.”

But Lamarr was at a loss to how to accomplish this frequency hopping. Antheil, however, was also somewhat of a mechanic. Fifteen years earlier, he had written a short avant-garde ballet called Ballet Mécanique, performed by an orchestra that included a number of unusual “instruments,” including 16 synchronized player pianos. Antheil proposed using an 88-band frequency – the number of keys on a piano – and using the same synchronized player piano technique he’d used on the ballet to generate the random frequency codes.

Some of Hedy Lamarr’s original frequency hopping sketches

On August 11, 1942, the U.S. government issued Patent 2,292,387 to Antheil and “Hedy Kiesler Markey,” Lamarr’s married name at the time. Except the government wasn’t interested, believing that the beautiful movie star was merely a dilettante when it came to technology. So Antheil and Lamarr simply returned to their more artistic day jobs.

Lamarr became even a bigger star during World War II and beyond, making more than 20 films, including her iconic performance in Samson & Delilah (1949), before retiring in 1958. In recognition of her iconic status, she got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.

While she was making movies, the Navy used her patent in the development of its sonobuoy, a floating submarine detection device, then handed it to several contractors that, not knowing the origins of the patent since Lamarr had used her married name on the patent, devised electronic versions of her frequency hopping technology, including use by the military for ship-to-ship communication during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis quarantine, all unbeknownst to Lamarr.

Over the following decades, frequency hopping morphed into spread spectrum at would be utilized in a variety of fashions by a variety of government and commercial entities in a variety of voice and data wireless products and platforms including cordless phones, cellular phones, satellite communications, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. No wireless communications technology or standard would be secure without spread spectrum.

Lamar’s and Antheil’s roles in the invention of this foundational technology, however, wasn’t widely known until 1997, when Lamarr was given a Pioneers Award by the Electronic Frontier Foundation after a campaign by an online net freedom activist named Dave Hughes. A year later, Lamarr sold 49 percent of her patent claim to Ottawa, Canada-based Wi-LAN.

The entire story of Lamarr’s and Antheil’s frequency hopping invention finally reached the general public via Rhodes’ book. In 2014, Antheil and Lamarr were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

About Stewart Wolpin

I have been writing about consumer electronics for four decades, including news, reviews, analysis and history for a wide variety of consumer, niche and trade outlets. For the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), I annually update the industry's history and write the official biographies of the CTA Hall of Fame inductees. Aside from writing about consumer technology for a variety of consumer, tech and trade publications, I write a blog and do market research for Digital Technology Consulting. In the non-tech world, I have written "Bums No More: The Championship Season of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers" and "The Rules of Neighborhood Poker According to Hoyle." Check out my work at www.stewartwolpin.com.
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